Text: Philippians 4: 8
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
The more I read this Bible verse, the more I am in awe of Paul. He is writing this passage languishing in a prison where the hope of release looks very bleak. He is aware of his death and getting ready for it. In midst of that he exhorts the Church of Philippi. Paul certainly was a man who had too many discouraging things happening in his life. He had opponents who hated him. There were people who thought he was useless. There were people who even made fun of his appearance and speeches. Take a look at this. ‘For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”’ (2 Corinthians 10: 10) In midst of all such negativity how did he manage to have so much hope? Not only that, he also gave hope to people around him.
Facebook had a patent question that it asked “What’s On your mind?” In short it was asking what you are thinking about. Did you know that the average person has 10,000 separate thoughts each day? That works out to be 3.5 million thoughts a year. If you live to be 75, you will have over 26 million different thoughts. Already most of you have had over 2,000 separate thoughts since you got out of bed this morning. You’ll probably have another 8,000 before you go to bed tonight. Then you’ll start all over again tomorrow. Every one of those 10,000 thoughts represents a choice you make, a decision to think about this, and not about that. So what gets clear is that thinking is a choice. But it is also true that our thinking gets influenced by the people and circumstances around us. There are many circumstances that discourage us. We face rejection, people call us useless. When we look around we feel out of place. We hear voices like “I am not good enough. I am not fair. I am not intelligent. I am never going to succeed. Nobody loves me” These are the range of voices that go on buzzing in your head. It pulls you back. It makes you fear taking a risk. You are afraid of falling. Everything looks very tough.
Let me share a small parable. There once was a bunch of tiny frogs who arranged a climbing competition. The goal was to reach the top of a very high tower.A big crowd had gathered around the tower to see the race and cheer on the contestants. The race began. No one in the crowd really believed the tiny frogs would reach the top of the tower.Heard throughout the race were statements such as, “Oh, way too difficult”, “They will never make it to the top”, “Not a chance they will succeed”, and “The tower is too high”.The tiny frogs began collapsing, one by one – except for those who, in a fresh tempo, were climbing higher and higher. The crowd continued to yell, “It is too difficult! No one will make it”!More tiny frogs got tired and gave up. But one continued to climb higher and higher. This one refused to give up!At the end of the race, all had given up climbing the tower except for the one tiny frog who, after a big effort, was the only one who reached the top!All of the other tiny frogs wanted to know how this one frog managed to do it. They asked him how he had found the strength to succeed and reach the goal. It turned out that the winning frog was deaf!
Now it is not possible for us to turn deaf to what people say. Neither can you avoid negative thoughts. Because the more you avoid negative thoughts, it becomes more prominent. Try telling yourself “I am not going to think about red.” The more the color red will pop up. So Paul says instead of avoiding negative thoughts, just hear a different voice. The voice of the Lord. Once when Paul complained about an ailment to God and asked him three times to get cured he heard the Voice of God saying ““My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9). This is why memorizing Bible Verses is so powerful. I had all kinds of negative thoughts before writing my Marathi paper in standard Eight. My head was full of the voice of my teacher who ridiculed me as I had failed in her subject. I just did not know what to do. This voice just stuck with me. There is when my mother told me to read Psalms 91. “Whoever goes to the Lord for safety, whoever remains under the protection of the Almighty, can say to him, you are my defender and protector, You are my God, in You I trust…..” That was the voice that helped me sail through. I did not avoid a negative voice, I heard a different voice.
I will end this meditation with a story that has transformed me. Before going to Seminary as a pre- Seminary training, I was assigned to Navjeevan Centre, Mumbai. The special task that I was assigned by the director Rev. Dr. Moni Mathew, was to teach the 16 children who were preparing for their Standard 10th exams. This was exciting as I had to teach History, Economics, Business Studies and English along with Roshen George and Koshy Kurian. Before the exams there was an aptitude test arranged for these 16 children. I was with the Psychiatrist and Psychologist when they did the test. All the feedback was given to me. It quantified how successful a candidate would be in clearing the 10th Standard exam. Out of that, one boy Prakash was given the lowest marks. The Psychologist made it very clear that “He is not a good choice for academics. He will not do well. Be prepared that if he appears he may fail in all the subjects. He just does not have the aptitude.” My heart sank. I shared the results with Moni Achen. He said “Prakash will write the exam. These are tests. It may be wrong. Do not tell this to him. If he knows this he may be discouraged. You just encourage. If he fails, it is ok. I will take care of that.” Honestly it was very tough teaching Prakash. He took time to understand. But he was the most sincere among the 16. He woke up every day at 3:45 AM. He studied. He had many doubts. He kept asking all of us. He told me “It is very tough. I do not understand a lot of things. But I am praying. I am trying my best.” There were days Prakash felt discouraged but he kept trying. The day of exams came. One after the other exams was getting over. We all were worried about how the children would fair. This exam allowed failure in 2 subjects. So I was hoping atleast that they should achieve. The result was out in July when I was in Seminary. The first result I asked Koshy was about Prakash. I expected the worst. I prayed for the best. He had passed in every single subject. Yes. Prakash had passed in every single subject. I just could not believe my ears. Tears flowed. I am still misty eyed writing this. Prakash had too many things against him. But he believed in God. He tried his best.
I have myself been a slave of other peoples’ opinion. Do not get me wrong, the friends who have critiqued me have helped me grow. But there are way too many things that pull you down. There are many stereotypes that we need to subscribe. Let nobody else decide what you can or cannot do. Hear the Voice of God who has created you. Let his voice guide you on. So my dear friends’ whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ Amen
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church
Text: Mark 1: 40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Leviticus 13 and 14 gave the Jews rules to follow when it came to skin diseases. They were to come to the priest and get examined. There is a laundry list of things that that the priest will look over and in the end pronounce him unclean. If that person had leprosy that meant that had to follow Leviticus 13:45,46 “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.” So this was the state of the man who came in front of Jesus. He lived alone. He yelled “Unclean! Unclean!” That is what he thought of himself.
In those days a Rabbi was considered holy because of the distance he kept from mundane affairs. He was perceived to be closer to God because he avoided association with sinners and unclean people. One could only be holy if one distanced themselves from the common people. But here was the Rabbi of Rabbis who was God in the incarnate form, who had what one could call the “Miracle of Approachability”. Jesus was available for everyone. If being Holy means to keep distance from people and the world, the one is definitely not following Jesus. His gift to the people was His availability. As a Priest, I always feel tempted to be aloof and disengaged from mundane affairs. But I need to constantly ask myself, am I approachable? Am I available to people? Am I following Jesus?
It is this availability of Jesus that compelled the person with Leprosy to come out of his isolation. The law demanded that such people should never come out in public and never appear in front of rabbis. But this Man did come out. He knew that Jesus could cleanse him and heal him. But he was not sure if Jesus would engage with him. That is why he says “If you choose, you can make me clean.” What did Jesus do?
Navjeevan Centre, Mumbai is a rehabilitation Centre for children of Commercial Sex workers. Most of the children had something about them where we could call it the “touch-deficit” inscribed on them. Either they were touched for all the wrong reasons or were not touched at all. This affected their self-esteem and confidence. There was a phenomenon that I saw when the then Director Rev Dr Moni Mathew came to the Centre. Children would run towards him. Was he giving gifts for them to flock. Yes. He was giving them the biggest gift that he could give. The gift of ‘touch’. He would hold them, affirm them, pat them and encourage them. Children loved that moment of eternity where they were respected and touched as humans. To be honest it is that day it dawned to me how important a human touch is. A touch means the world to people who are deprived of it. It is the touch that makes them feel human.
This man with Leprosy was one who nobody touched. Imagine a life where no one touched you. No one held your hands. No one patted your back and said “Well done.” No one hugged. No one kissed. No one put hands on your shoulder and said “Do not worry. Everything will be fine.” It is here we understand the “Miracle of Touch” that Jesus uses. He could have just said “be healed” and that would have been enough. But he chose to touch him. He affirmed the man his dignity. And then he says “I do choose. Be made clean!”. The man’s biggest struggle was the fact that he was unclean. It bothered him more than being a leper. Jesus addresses his deepest struggle and made him clean.
What is the most fascinating part of this miracle? The man with Leprosy was believed to be infected. His disease was believed to be contagious. But here the Leper did not infect Jesus with his sickness. Jesus infected the Leper with his life. How beautiful! Jesus is life. And the life he has is infectious. When Jesus touched him it is said in vs 42 ‘Immediately the leprosy[e] left him, and he was made clean.’ The infection of life was so strong that even when Jesus warned the man with Leprosy to not tell this to anyone, But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word. He was filled with a new life that compelled him to spread the infection of life that Jesus promised.
When I am on facebook I come out feeling very miserable. There is so much of hatred, abuses, and negative comments all over. In our daily life we are faced with so much of anger in bus, work places and roads. We are all infected with hatred and we too are spreading this infection. I remember when in college, my best friend Sherin Abraham came and hugged me. I did not know what the matter was. Then he narrated to me a story. “I was riding my bike. I came to a signal where there was this old man. I partially nudged him and his tiffin fell on the ground and his food was all over the road. The people nearby yelled out in anger. I knew that was it. Then I looked at the old man who I had wronged. He looked and smiled at me. You know I was in tears. And he told me to go. He had every right to be angry. But he chose to smile. It was such a huge lesson of grace for me. He just ended the cycle of anger there and then.” In a time where prejudices, hatred and anger are so contagious and spreading like wild fire, Jesus is asking us to be contagious with life. Spread the joy of love. Celebrate life. Spread the infection of being human. Let us spread the joy of life. Life is truly wonderful.
Before giving the Holy Body and Holy Blood at the Eucharist, the Mar Thoma Liturgy has a passage where the Priest holds the Holy elements and turns to the congregation and says “Daivamaya karthaave Kaanapedavtha-alaatha Ninte Valath Kai Neeti……” (Lord Stretch out your invisible right hand…). We at the table of our Lord are infected with anger, jealousy, hatred and pride. The Priest beseeches Christ to Stretch out his hands like he stretched out to the Leper, so that we may be cleansed and be infected with the Life that only Christ can give. May Christ Stretch out His Invisible Right Hand and touch us. Let us hear him say “I do choose. Be made clean.” Amen
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church